Parenting with Dr. Ramey: The good and bad news about perfectionism

Since the late 1980s, there has been a significant increase in young adults’ passion for perfectionism, according to recent research by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill involving more than 40,000 college students. Perfectionism was defined not only as the standards that these kids set for themselves, but also for what others expect of them as well as what they expect of others.

Compared to previous generations, millennials reported a 33 percent increase in the external burden they feel from others and a 10 percent increase in self-generated expectations.

Is this good or bad news? It can be argued that setting high standards and pressuring oneself to excel are positive traits, responsible for academic achievement and personal growth. However, perfectionism is not simply striving to be better, but rather attempting to be perfect. It’s an unattainable goal and has some significant negative effects.

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The experts view perfectionism as a “core vulnerability,” and speculate that it may help explain the rise in a variety of mental health problems. Issues such as loneliness, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicidal feelings are connected with perfectionistic unachievable standards.

This is a vicious cycle. If the standards I impose upon myself, or feel are demanded by society that can never be achieved, then I must be a bad or worthless person. These feelings may be reinforced by the increased use of social media, which gives us easy access to comparing our lives with others.

This new research presents a problem for parents, who want their children to realize their potential. How can we tell when legitimate encouragement inadvertently gets interpreted as excessive pressure?

1. Listen to your child. The problem of perfectionism starts early, with elementary school kids getting upset by anything less than a perfect score on a test. Correct those misperceptions. Remember that you want to encourage effort, not just results.

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2. Be careful of your language. In a desire to motivate and inspire, parents sometimes push their kids too hard both academically and athletically. I'm concerned about the growth of elite sporting programs for young athletes, involving a great deal of travel and expense. There is lots of satisfaction when kids excel, but be careful it doesn't come at the cost of their happiness and mental health.

3. Monitor social media. Kids compare themselves to others, desperately hoping for an abundance of "likes" or positive feedback. Monitor your children's usage and engage them in ongoing conversations about the impact of social media on their feelings about themselves.

4. Be moderate. Don't stop setting high standards for your kids. Just keep things in balance.

We want our children to develop into adults who are both productive and happy. Don’t sacrifice the latter for the former.

Next Week: Great advice from the “Father of Psychology.”

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